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Flint Residents May Now Sue Government Officials Over Contaminated Water

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court has dealt a victory to people in Flint, Mich., who are seeking damages for the city's contaminated drinking water. The court's action last week clears a barrier that residents faced trying to sue government officials. But as Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports, some in Flint fear they are still a long way from getting compensation.

STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: I'm standing next to the Flint River. That sound you hear is the dingy brown water rolling over a former dam, creating a frothy foam that's floating further downstream. In 2014, state officials decided to use this murky water as Flint's drinking water source. But the water wasn't properly treated, releasing lead and other contaminants into Flint's tap water.

Flint resident Margaret Wesley blames the drinking water switch for the death of her adult daughter Mary.

MARGARET WESLEY: They knew. I'll go to my grave believing they knew what was in that water - the bacteria.

CARMODY: Wesley is one of more than 30,000 Flint residents who filed lawsuits against the city and state regulators. They're seeking compensation for medical expenses, property damage and, in some cases, deaths tied to the Flint water crisis. Lawyers for the government officials being sued had claimed they're protected by something called qualified immunity, which is a legal doctrine shielding government officials. But last week, the U.S. Supreme Court let a lower court ruling stand that government officials cannot claim immunity in this case.

Attorney Michael Pitt is co-lead counsel on the class action lawsuit for Flint victims.

MICHAEL PITT: We hope that it's going to provide justice not only for the people of Flint, but for other people, especially communities of color and impoverished areas where they become the victims of environmental injustice.

CARMODY: But since the Supreme Court's decision only directly affects the U.S. Sixth Circuit, it's unclear if it would apply to other federal lawsuits. Even so, the ruling is getting attention.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning again. We're going to get started here with our local water panel.

CARMODY: This past weekend, more than a hundred drinking water activists, some from as far away as Kenya and Guatemala, met at a century-old church in Detroit. To them, the Supreme Court's decision was welcome news.

ANTHONY DIAZ: This is give - gives me so much hope.

CARMODY: That's Anthony Diaz, co-founder of New Jersey's Newark Water Coalition. His group is dealing with that city's issues over lead-contaminated water. He suspects some government officials have been less responsive, in part because they didn't fear legal actions against them personally.

DIAZ: But now they know that they don't have that freedom to fall back on. It's going to make them nervous. It's going to make them scared. And now we can apply pressure to get the things that we want.

CARMODY: For Flint residents seeking resolution, civil claims now seem to be the best path. Initially, 15 state and city officials were indicted on criminal charges ranging from neglect of duty to involuntary manslaughter. But prosecutors cut deals with seven defendants and last year dropped charges against the rest. It remains unclear if anyone will ever face trial for the Flint water crisis, and that frustrates Flint resident Claire McClinton.

CLAIRE MCCLINTON: The people in Flint, in terms of justice, holding people accountable and compensation - we are batting zero.

CARMODY: Unless a settlement is reached, it's likely a trial on the damage claims won't take place for at least another year. Meanwhile, April marks six years since Flint's water source was switched. In the years since the crisis, Flint's water quality has improved and is now comparable to other cities. But many here still don't trust that the water flowing through their taps is safe to drink.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody in Flint, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POSTAL SERVICE'S "TURN AROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting. During his two and a half decades in broadcasting, Steve has won numerous awards, including accolades from the Associated Press and Radio and Television News Directors Association. Away from the broadcast booth, Steve is an avid reader and movie fanatic. Q&A

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